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See the World! (On Paper that is ...)
By David Pitt

If the word brrr springs nimbly to mind these days, you might be inclined to pack a few suitcases and take a trip somewhere a tad less chilly. Or, if you're one of the lucky ones who spend all year 'round in a toasty climate, you might have some cold-weather friends who yearn to hit the road. To help you decide where to go (or where to send your friends), National Geographic Books has issued five titles in its National Geographic Traveler series.

These large-format paperback guides to Egypt, India, Venice, Mexico and Arizona are beautiful travelers' aids: copiously illustrated (photographs, maps, etc.), simply and entertainingly written, full of information. Take the Egypt guide, for example: here's an essay on the country's history and culture; in-depth chapters on Cairo, Alexandria, and Luxor; and a big section, called Travelwise, that lays out the country's hotels and restaurants (by geographical region), entertainment, language, and so on. There's even a glossary of useful terms (bayt = house) and a who's-who list of some important names in Egyptian history.

Speaking of Egypt, here's Egypt of the Pharoahs, text by Brian Fagan, photographs by Kenneth Garrett. It's one of several new coffee-table volumes from National Geographic Books, a luscious, full-color trip through Egyptian history. Garrett's photographs are, no surprise, gorgeous; Fagan's text is simultaneously informative and exciting. If you're leaning toward a trip to Egypt, you really ought to give this book a look, so you can see the splendors that await you.

If you're thinking about making India your destination, well, you can start with the India travel guide, but I think you might also want to peruse National Geographic: The Wildlife Photographs, edited by John G. Mitchell. This almost entirely text-free book is chock-full of tender, moving, thought-provoking, surprising, shocking, unsettling, and just plain eye-catching pictures of animals around the world (including, see for example page 240, India). The candid nature of the photos - it's very difficult to get wildlife to pose for a snapshot - allows us to imagine that we are right there with the photographer, observing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitats. It's a breathtaking book.

Also breathtaking is Peoples of the World: Their Cultues, Traditions, and Ways of Life. The book's nine chapters take us to Asia, Europe, South America, the Arctic, and other ports of call. The photographs are, as usual, spectacular, and the text, by such familiar-to-National-Geographic-readers names as Brian Fagan and Wade Davis, is smooth and educational. Reading a book like this inspires us to get up off our duffs and go visit these fascinating foreign lands.

One place that's certainly got a lot more fascinating lately is Russia. Broken Empire: After the Fall of the USSR, with photographs by Gerd Ludwig and text by Fen Montaigne, chronicles the vast changes Russia has undergone since the fall of Communism. 'In the first week of January 1992,' Montaigne writes, 'just a few days after the demise of the USSR, capitalism flattened Russia ... Overnight, tens of millions of Russians became impoverished, their savings rendered virtually worthless.' The photographs show us a superpower that has instantly become a third-world country, a people thrust, empty-handed, into the twenty-first century. Immensely moving.

Finally, here's Stories on Paper and Glass: Pioneering Photography at National Geographic, edited by Leah Bendavid-Val. These 250 photographs, many of them never before published (which alone makes the book a treat), spotlight the early years of National Geographic Society photography. As Bendavid-Val takes us through the history of the Society's vast photography collection, she shows us some of its magnificent works. The tools of picture-taking might have changed over the years, but this book makes one thing clear: photographers were just as talented then as they are today.
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